A ton of academics talk about imposter syndrome - the belief that you're tricking everyone around you into thinking you're way better than you are, as good as they are, and the fear that they'll discover this ruse and cast you out.

I do rather interdisciplinary work and rather technical work in non-technical departments. This often means that I'm bringing expertise to bear that no one else at the table has, references that they haven't seen, or novel experiment designs. I love this aspect of my work - I really think that magical stuff happens when you make analogies that cross functional categories.

Like most good things, the upside of bringing outside expertise has a downside; for me, this manifests as occasional bouts of extra-intense imposter syndrome (or maybe what I feel is the normal take on imposter syndrome; I can't speak for the subjective experiences of others). See, when you're in a room full of linguists and you're talking about relational reasoning or in a room full of cognitive psychologists and you're talking about linguistic developmental trajectories no one there can sanity check you. While it's fun to be the expert, it can make it difficult for those around you to evaluate your competence (backing up your statements with data and references helps!). More problematically, a tiny amount of expertise (e.g., enough to know you're dangerous) can be interpreted as deep expertise by those outside of your discipline.

This tendency for a little knowledge to go a long way seems especially pervasive among graduate students; a lot of us come from a culture where we use knowledge as a proxy for ability or effort. This "outside expertise" effect is compounded if you appear confident and assertive. This sometimes leads us into absurd situations - one of my colleagues identified a really strong effect for a filler item in a survey and the audience assumed that she chose it deliberately and had a theory to explain the effect. To her credit, she announced that she had no idea why the association was as strong as it was. I've had similar experiences where a side interest or seminar syllabus turned me into the "outside expert" in ways that struck me as absurd; if reading a handful of papers an expert makes, what does that mean for the areas where I actually feel like an expert?

I've been struggling with this for weeks, and tonight I found a tool that was particularly effective at cutting through the doubt. I've got a revision due for a pub so I was forced to look at something I've written that I'm proud of. I was expecting a hack job that glossed over stuff I didn't know well and spent too many words on things within my core research interests. What I found was a paper that was much better than I remembered or expected.

Try this: dig up work that you've done a few months ago that you're proud of. Take a look at it. It's better than you think.

So are you!

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